Despite a budget hole of $611 million, a court-ordered reform of Oklahoma’s child welfare system will be funded for the 2016 fiscal year, the chairmen of the Legislature’s budget writing committees said Monday.
State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, said the Department of Human Services’ Pinnacle Plan would be funded for the next fiscal year. “It’s not up for debate,” Jolley, chairman of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee, said. “The Pinnacle Plan will be funded.”
House Budget Chair, Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, agreed. “It’s a must,” Sears said. “As far as the House Budget Committee is concerned, we will fund the Pinnacle Plan.”
John Estus, director of public affairs for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said DHS has requested $15.9 million for fiscal 2016 to fund improvements outlined in the plan. Additional money may be sought next year.
Created in 2012 as the result of a four-year federal class action lawsuit, D.G. vs. Yarborough, the plan is supposed to help DHS improve services and outcomes for children in the care and custody of the state.
The plan targeted seven areas within the child welfare system and calls for hiring about 100 more child welfare workers, increasing child welfare workers’ pay, adding more regular and therapeutic foster homes and eliminating the use of shelters for the state’s youngest foster children.
Records from DHS indicate that as of June 2014, 11,587 children were in DHS custody.
As part of the settlement agreement, the federal court appointed three out-of-state child welfare experts – Kathleen Noonan, Kevin Ryan and Eileen Crummy – who were asked to oversee the development of the child welfare improvement plan and monitor its implementation.
The trio, known as “co-neutrals,” has issued three reports since the settlement. The first report, released in October 2013, questioned some of the data provided by DHS regarding the number of regular and therapeutic foster homes in the state.
The second and third reports were critical of the agency’s reform efforts.
“Despite the burgeoning need among children in its custody, DHS missed the target outcome of developing 1,197 new foster homes in FY14,” the co-neutral’s third report stated. “DHS approved only 764 new foster homes, 64 percent of its annual target and 27 fewer homes than DHS reports it approved the previous fiscal year.”
The third report criticized the agency for high worker caseloads, the overuse of shelters, long delays on the child abuse hotline and a backlog of child abuse and neglect investigations.
Ed Lake, DHS director, said the agency was committed to implementing the Pinnacle Plan.
“We have a myriad of efforts underway which are already showing positive results,” Lake said in a response to the co-neutral’s third report. “While we still have a long way to go before we can be completely satisfied with our services, we are making progress to make this system better for kids and families.”
Lake said the agency has increased the number of in-home services to families in an effort to keep children out of state custody. He said younger children are being kept out of shelters and added DHS workers have increased the number of visits to children in foster care and raised the pay of child welfare specialists.
The state representative who spearheaded the reform effort said the plan has helped improve Oklahoma’s child welfare system, but he added more work remains.
“I think overall, they (DHS) are doing all they can,” Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, said. “Could there be improvements in some areas? Yes. There is still a very focused effort to trying to improve.”
Nelson was the principal House author of the reform package. Although fiscal restraints have limited the amount of money lawmakers could allocate to the plan, Nelson said between 70 and 80 percent of the plan has been funded and the reform efforts will continue.
“The department has made a good-faith effort to make a case for the funding,” Nelson said. “And I think the Legislature has responded to that.”